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Political Leaders Not in Sync With Exasperated Electorate

December 26, 1995

WARNER, N.H. (AP) _ Derek Pershouse is the portrait of an increasingly disenchanted voter.

Like many Americans looking to next year’s elections, he senses the nation is at a crossroads and a mere election won’t cure its problems.

``We’ve got to change the wind, not the sails,″ said Pershouse, 60, who is struggling to rejuvenate his career after losing his job as a regional planner.

A study for the Pew Center for Civic Journalism shows that anxiety pervades America and is growing.

Voters are disenchanted with what they see as America’s eroding values and economy, and they fear the American Dream is becoming unattainable and political leaders aren’t listening or don’t understand, the study found.

In essence, Americans perceive a major shift in society, said Richard Harwood, a Maryland-based opinion researcher who conducted the study. They feel the economy is unraveling, values have disappeared and corporations lay off workers to please stockholders and fatten executives’ salaries.

``The fabric of our society now is far less stable,″ said Pershouse, who did not participate in the study. He feels America’s biggest challenge is rebuilding a sense of community in the computer age.

A close community protects its weakest members and leads people to act responsibly, said Pershouse, who was in his 50s when his employer was bought out and he lost his job.

Harwood held 15 three-hour, intensive discussions, called focus groups, with voters in California, Florida, Iowa and New Hampshire _ crucial states in presidential politics. The meetings were held in communities large and small, from Los Angeles and Miami to Claremont, N.H., and Davenport, Iowa. Participants were promised anonymity to encourage them to speak freely.

The voters said politicians were speaking a different language.

Politicians ``don’t have a clue as to what we’re up against as working people,″ a Jacksonville, Fla., man said in the study.

Talk about taxes, welfare changes and family values by the Republican presidential candidates and President Clinton illustrate the disconnection, Harwood said. The candidates believe they are touching a chord. But in fact, they are deepening the ``cynicism and frustration and alienation that people feel about politics,″ he said.

``Tax reform, family values, welfare reform _ (all) merely skate across the surface of people’s concerns, and when people hear those kinds of labels, they say, `These politicians don’t get it. They don’t get how deeply I feel these problems and how much they affect me on a day-to-day basis,‴ Harwood said in a telephone interview.

A Mason City, Iowa, man said he would like to hear a candidate say: ``If you don’t agree with me, don’t vote for me. But if you vote for me, I’m going to try to do exactly this.″

Voters are exasperated because they vote for change, but believe they don’t get it. They feel high-powered politicians and corporate and media executives control their lives.

``We’re becoming more like a lot of foreign countries _ where there is an extreme upper class, and a lower class, and no middle class,″ another Iowa man said.

Voters want leaders to give realistic expectations and to propose solutions that are attainable even if they will take time, according to the study.

Holding ``town meetings″ and group discussions with voters has become fashionable for politicians. But citizens who take part question whether they are being heard.

``Are they listening to us because they really care about what we think, or because they want our vote?″ a New Hampshire woman asked.

The focus groups confirmed a growing anxiety documented in a survey released in November by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press.

Across the board, from affording college to buying a home, voters are more worried about their futures than in the past. When it comes to health care, 66 percent of voters are ``very concerned″ they won’t be able to afford it, compared with 50 percent last year.

A third of voters are extremely concerned about losing a job or pay, up from 1994 and nearly double the rate in 1988.

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